“The mind of an observer is a peculiar place.”
Observer is the newest game from the polish developer Blooper who previously made Layers of Fear which is, in crude words, a spooky hallway simulator in which a painter is going absolutely insane over a painting. But this time you play as a detective in a dystopian cyberpunk Krakow… And is otherwise pretty much the same.
It was only around a third into the game I realized that it was in fact the same developer as I found it too familiar, the entire feeling. It was like having déjà vu over something completely unrelated.
You play Daniel Lazarski a so called Observer who can enter peoples minds in order to solve crimes, so far so good. The game starts out with a hint at a plot and an investigation, but doesn’t do much with this until a bit over halfway.
And here lies one of its problems, the game hints at so much more than it is, but you as the player only slowly realizes that there isn’t much else to it than what appears on the surface. A great shame.
There is a murder in the beginning of the game and then you are simply just dropped into the mystery, wondering what the game wants of you. It is an extremely linear game, just spooky hallways, but where Layers of Fear had the wonder of what was behind the next door, and the knowledge that the game was about finding the tools to create your magnum opus, you don’t really know what the story wants in Observer. Does it want to be a murder mystery? At times. Does it want to be a surreal horror game? At times. What about wanting to search for your son, which was what kickstarted the very game? If it finds time for it.
It might just have been because I expected so much more from it, but I was quite disappointed by the story of this game. At least in the way it was presented. Right after I played Observer I played through Amnesia again, also a game with spooky hallways and a mystery, and the way the narrative was developed in that game is many times better.
In Observer the story just kind of happens, and most of the interesting parts are told in the very end. This can work in a game where story is just an afterthought, but in a detective game this is a terrible crime.
The first half of the game is mainly just walking around in an apartment complex, knocking on doors and trying to find the plot, eh, I mean the murder. If there is a murder. This part was ripe with theories, as the game doesn’t push much your way, or the potential to create your own theories. It just feels like you walk around and suddenly you open the right door to the next clue, instead of working out why you needed to open that door.
Now, the game world is made up of two distinct parts, a nightmarish cyberpunk apartment complex, with nearby surroundings, and the surreal mindscape of the victims.
The apartment gets a few twists and turns when you get around halfway, but otherwise looks just like you think it would look. There’s not many surprises here, which isn’t that bad. But for some reason the first half of the game involves around talking to the inhabitants of this slum and hear their crazy stories. But then when you get halfway it just kinda… Stops. No more free roaming, in what few hallways you can roam freely in, and instead there is a big sturdy railway track. Welcome to the story, my friend.
What I personally was interested in when I heard about the game was the observer parts, in which you enter the minds of people. I had thought the game would put you in a crime scene where you had to enter the minds of people to solve the murder, to find clues around, but instead it is just Layers of Fear. It is just surreal hallways in which horror happens. And they are so, so long.
For those that loves these parts the length might be a blessing, since there’s plenty to go around, but for me it felt like filler. And that is a shame since this is where much of the budget went.
There isn’t much of a story in these, compared to the amount of more or less random things that happens. If it just felt like whatever happened was either symbolic or you as the player could draw conclusions from it, but that is not really what is happening. Its maybe 30% story and 70% set pieces in these parts. As you can hear, I am not the biggest of fans.
There was one of these mind probings that felt like it actually gave you something, which is near the very end of the game. But otherwise its just like playing any other first person indie horror game. And I expected so much more from Observer. Maybe that is my own fault, for expecting more, but sometimes life hands you hope.
The gameplay mainly revolves around walking around and scanning things with your two scanning filters, finding clues (which doesn’t really do much since there is no actual investigation), talking to the tenants and solving a few puzzles here and there. You can say that it has a few more layers than Layers of Fear, and yes, I am here all week.
But these layers rarely do anything. At times they do give the feeling of being a detective, which is good, but sadly they are not very well incorporated into the game. And the mind scenes have none of these, as you can’t scan anything. You are just in for the ride. And of course, the further into the game you get, the less gameplay it has.
But, I cannot go this far without mentioning the technical aspects. For the graphics are beyond gorgeous. Sure, there are actually only two properly moving character models in the game, a few passive people and a lot of door cams, but it is still one of the most beautifully crafted worlds I have set my cyberpunk foot in. Triple A studies should be ashamed by themselves if they do not match this level of craftsmanship.
The sound work is also well made and even used correctly. Well, for a horror game, not a detective game. But it still counts I think. There’s also some other technical details like locker doors able to close each other, if you open them fast enough, the momentum carries through from object to object. Not important to the game itself of course, but impressive nonetheless.
All in all, I cannot give Observer a higher nor a lower grade than this. It can never reach higher for me, due to its disappointment. I wanted to love this game, and yet I simply could not. I tried as hard as I possibly could. But there were still some parts which I enjoyed, during the end of the game I began to slowly get immersed in the world, but that is a little too late as you say.
The graphics, which are still out of this world, also makes sure it doesn’t get any lower a grade as that feels like I would be insulting such a beautiful game.
I can only recommend it if you really, really want another, worse, Layers of Fear without the charm that it had. Or if you truly hunger for a cyberpunk game. Though it is almost worth it for the graphics themselves.